Joan E. Dowlin Headshot

Have We Become Numb to War?

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We were told: "We have to defeat them over there instead of here." "The enemy has no regard for human life." "If we lose, everyone will consider us weak." "We are fighting for freedom and democracy."

On the other side we heard: "We are losing the hearts and minds of the populace there." "Why are we even there?" "This is a civil war we should not be involved in." "It's a quagmire that is un-winnable." "The soldiers are having a hard time identifying the enemy." "We are killing women, children, and villagers." "We are hurting the United States' reputation worldwide."

I'm speaking not of Afghanistan or Iraq, but Vietnam, that unpopular war (1964-1975) from the '60s where so many American lives were lost, countless civilian and Vietnamese soldiers were killed, and the nation was torn apart for over a decade.

I thought we had learned our lesson from Vietnam, but apparently not. As comedienne Lily Tomlin has stated: "Maybe history would stop repeating itself if we stopped and listened."

After eight years of fighting have we become numb to war? When the Vietnam War was raging we saw heart-wrenching images of battles on TV (the first war to be telecast). It was a front page story. And as an anti-war protester, I was deeply disturbed by what was going on. I let my voice be heard in Washington and to anyone who chose to discuss it with me.

I remember when a college classmate of mine told me her brother was killed in the Vietnam War. I was devastated. I felt so badly for her and was ashamed of my country for drafting so many young men to go over there and "kill or be killed." I was also relieved that my brother was exempt by a broken toe and heart murmur.

The peace demonstrations did accomplish some objectives. The sitting President (Lyndon B. Johnson) responsible for escalating the war decided not to seek re-election after an anti-war candidate (Sen. Eugene McCarthy) had a strong showing in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. The opposing party (Republican) won the 1968 election with the promise of ending the war, although it took President Richard M. Nixon seven years to do so. There is no longer any military draft. We as a nation were not engaged in any long term conflicts involving troops for 27 years.

Until now. What has happened to the anti-war movement of old? Why have we as a nation allowed two simultaneous wars to be waged in our name? I know there were lies told about weapons of mass destruction and who was responsible for 9/11, but are we really that gullible?

With the conflict in Vietnam, we challenged the conventional wisdom about that war and won to some degree. It was hard work, but we had the will, the guts, and righteous outrage to do it.

Today it seems we view war as an inevitable consequence of life. In today's Reading Eagle (PA) newspaper it took until page 7 to find an article on Afghanistan. It tells about a devastating NATO air strike in Kunduz where 70 people were confirmed dead. It was unclear how many victims were villagers and how many were Taliban (our foes). Sound hauntingly familiar?

Stories on Iraq were nowhere to be found.

Have we become complacent or are we war weary? Do we have too much on our plate with the recession, unemployment, health care debates, and global warming?

I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but all of these issues are related. We can't ignore the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as though they are not happening. The cost is tremendous, not just in billions of dollars, but in lives, in debilitating injuries (both physical and mental), and in national morale.

How can it not be a part of our national psyche? Maybe, just maybe, these expensive wars are a major cause of our recession. We had a huge recession in 1976 that President Jimmy Carter was blamed for right after the Vietnam War ended and one in 1991 after the First Gulf War that hurt President George H.W. Bush's chances for re-election.

Military spending is the "golden goose" that continues to skyrocket with no one ever complaining or questioning it. We are manipulated by fear used by the "military industrial complex". The events of 9/11 became a boon for a defense department already bloated beyond measure.

I know some will say I am unpatriotic for even suggesting we cut the Pentagon's budget. However, they said that to me in the 1960s and I do love this country and want to see her prosper. Funding unending wars is not the way to go.

Although I voted for Barack Obama for President, I never agreed with his campaign promise to expand the war in Afghanistan. One of the primary issues he beat Hillary Clinton over the head with was how he was against the war in Iraq while she voted for it. Many thought this made him the "peace" candidate.

Far from it. It's true that President Obama inherited two botched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from his predecessor (President George W. Bush), but ending one mistake (Iraq) does not justify escalating another. This is a tribal, religious civil war with the added danger of involving a neighbor who has nuclear weapons (Pakistan)> Pakistan has its own problems with its other neighbor, India, who also has nuclear capabilities. The whole area is a powder keg waiting to explode.

Is exacting revenge for 9/11, where over 3,000 American lives were lost, worth a nuclear holocaust? How many innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians have to die before we feel avenged? In May of 2009, Unknown News estimated at least 753,118 people have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since the U.S. and coalition attacks, based on lowest credible estimates.

Some say if we just capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11, the war will end. Well, we said that about Saddam Hussein, who was captured and hung in 2003, and the Iraqi war continues to this day.

As our military involvement becomes more and more entrenched in the Middle East, how many global hearts and minds will we win over? When will America's credibility in the world become so damaged as to be irreparable?

I believe President Obama's June 4th, 2009 address in Cairo, Egypt to the Muslim world is a better approach than waging war. Al Qaeda (the group responsible for attacking the U.S. on 9/11/01) will have a harder time recruiting restless young jihadists if America is not seen as the enemy.

I call on all the ex-hippies of the 1960s to reawaken. We have all to some extent become part of the "establishment" we protested against so long ago. But we have come a long way, especially from the stifling 1950s where blacks, minorities, women, and gays were oppressed. We have elected the first African American President, confirmed the first Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court, begun to see more rights granted to gay couples, and are on the verge of passing health care reform.

Let us not compartmentalize war but put pressure on our new leader to begin the process to end both conflicts. We will be a better nation for it.